Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 45;   November 7, 2018: Critical Communications

Critical Communications

by

Last updated: November 9, 2018

From time to time, we're responsible for sending critical communications — essential messages that the intended recipients must have. It's a heavy responsibility that can bear some risk. A strategy for managing those risks involves three messages.
An Apple iPhone

An Apple iPhone. If you anticipate using your smartphone or other mobile device for critical communications, make certain it's charged, and carry a spare power source.

Some communications are critical. Critical communications simply must get through to their intended recipients, and there must be evidence that the people who were supposed to send the critical communications fulfilled their responsibilities. If some of your communications are critical, and if you work in a politically toxic environment — such as a blame-based culture — you're at risk. If one of your critical communications doesn't get through, or if the intended recipient falsely denies receiving it, you might find yourself in deep yogurt. To learn how to manage this risk, check out this fable.

Let's suppose that you're a member of a team engaged in something really important, and risky too. It's so important, and so risky, that your team must work night and day on a weekend to get it done. That way, if something goes wrong, the unfortunate consequences — and they will be truly unfortunate — will affect a minimum number of people, and do a limited amount of damage to the organization. And if necessary, there will be time to revert the system to its original state before work resumes on Monday morning.

And let's further suppose that your organization, and its leadership, is more dysfunctional than most. They aren't setting new records for evil ruthlessness, but they're pretty serious about trying to set those records. It's an unpleasant place to work, and the political machinations are pretty nasty.

Yuck. You're planning to leave, but you haven't yet.

So, OK. Victor, the VP responsible for the system your team is "improving," didn't see the need to be on site during the weekend surgery, but he left word with Ariel, the team lead, to contact him if anything goes wrong. When things did go wrong, Ariel texted status to Victor. Victor didn't respond, so Ariel called him, as Victor had instructed. Ariel got routed to voicemail, and left a message. Twice.

Ariel's message was, "Things didn't go as we hoped. The system did come up, but it can't talk to any of the databases, so we decided to revert to the initial state. We expect that we'll be back up by Sunday afternoon."

Seemed reasonable to Ariel and the team, but not to Victor. Late on Saturday, he wrote a castigating email message to the team, telling them that they gave up too easily, and that they should have called him when he didn't respond to the text message.

At this Some suggestions for managing the
risks of critical communications if you
work in a toxic culture, or if someone
in your work life is ruthless
point, your boss heard about what was happening, and texted you asking whether you had called Victor as he had instructed. You told him Ariel had called Victor. But now Victor denies it, at least by implication. What a mess. It's your word against Victor's, and against Victor, in this toxic culture, your word isn't worth much. What could you have done differently?

Here are some suggestions for managing the risks of critical communications if you work in a toxic culture, or if someone in your work life is ruthless.

Mitigate critical communication risk in text messages
Include in your text message three items: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a note saying that you'll be sending this same content by email; and (3) a note saying that you'll by contacting the recipient(s) by telephone, at all numbers he, she, or they have provided, to communicate the same content. And if multiple people need to be informed, send the message to all of them at once. (If you don't know how to send texts to multiple people here's a tutorial for iPhone. Android is similar. Try it before you need it.)
We do most of our texting using smartphones, where the user interfaces for message creation and message editing are a little cumbersome. On a smartphone, composing a text message of this complexity can be a bit inconvenient. Use your computer instead, if you can send text messages from your computer.
Mitigate critical communication risk in email messages
Use the same approach in email that you used for the text message. Include in critical email messages three items: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a note saying that you've already sent this same content by text message; and (3) a note saying that you'll by contacting the recipient(s) by telephone, at all numbers he, she, or they provided, to communicate the same content. Again, if multiple people need to be informed, send the message to all of them at once.
Whichever device you used for the text message, if you can send email from that device, you can copy the text message to a new email message, do a few edits, and send it off easily.
But if you use a computer for these communications, to save time in the actual event that you need to send a critical communication, you can prepare both the text message and the email message in advance in template form, omitting perhaps the actual content you would need to communicate. If you prepare the template messages in advance, though, don't prepare them in the text messaging or email apps — the templates might be sent to the recipient(s) by accident. Instead, prepare the messages in a text editor document and copy them from there to the respective messaging apps when you need them.
Mitigate critical communication risk in voicemail
Finally, there are the telephone messages. Possibly your intended recipient(s) will actually pick up the phone when you call, but otherwise you might need to leave voicemail. In either case, since this is a critical communication, don't try to make it up as you speak. Read it from a prepared script. This message, like the previous two, has three elements: (1) the content you're trying to communicate; (2) a comment to the effect that you've already sent this same content by text message; and (3) a comment to the effect that you've already sent this same content by email.
If you're speaking directly to the recipient, prepare for interruptions. He or she might ask for more details than you intended to leave in voicemail. Provide some detail, but never more than you know with certainty. And remember to convey the information about your previous email and text messages.
If you need to leave a voicemail message, include at the end your name, email address, and phone number. Provide each one twice to give your recipient(s) a chance to confirm what he or she heard the first time.
Avoid naming names
Assuming that you work in a toxic or blame-based culture, naming names in any of these messages is probably unwise. For example, don't say, "Fred advised me that the system will be back up by noon, if all goes well." Even though you added the escape hatch, "if all goes well," naming Fred specifically sets him up as a target if the system isn't back up by noon. Instead say, "I've been advised that …" or "The experts on the team believe …"

All of this multiple messaging might seem a bit extreme, and it is, if all you're trying to do is communicate the content. But if you work in a toxic culture, where you're likely to be falsely blamed for failing to send a critical communication, communicating the content isn't the sole purpose of this strategy. It's not even the primary purpose. The primary purpose is to deter others from plausibly claiming that you didn't try to communicate critical content in a timely fashion. The strategy above leaves so many breadcrumbs that any potential blamer must consider the possibility that he or she will be caught in a lie by claiming that you didn't communicate as required. Deterring a lie is far more effective than refuting a lie.

Finally do what you can to get out of the snake pit. Finding another job isn't always easy, and it's sometimes impossible. But recognize that the culture of the organization is the real cause of the need to manage critical communication risk to this extreme extent. Unless you're responsible, as part of your job, for shaping that culture, problems like this — and worse — will recur for the indefinite future. The only real fix, from your perspective, is an exit. Go to top Top  Next issue: The Goal Is Not the Path  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenbroWytNJRzcFdMyWner@ChacBCxdoctToEvsVpiMoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Effective Communication at Work:

FightingDangerous Phrases
I recently upgraded my email program to a new version that "monitors messages for offensive text." It hasn't worked out well. But the whole affair got me to think about everyday phrases that do tend to set people off. Here's a little catalog.
Cheese and crackersWhen Naming Hurts
One of our great strengths as Humans is our ability to name things. Naming empowers us by helping us think about and communicate complex ideas. But naming has a dark side, too. We use naming to oversimplify, to denigrate, to disempower, and even to dehumanize. When we abuse this tool, we hurt our companies, our colleagues, and ourselves.
Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who tried to halt the launch of Challenger in 1986Towards More Gracious Disagreement
We spend a sizable chunk of time correcting each other. Some believe that we win points by being right, or lose points by being wrong, but nobody seems to know who keeps the official score. Here are some thoughts to help you kick the habit.
Senator Jeff Sessions grills Budget Director Sylvia Burwell on President Obama's 2015 Budget March 5, 2014That Was a Yes-or-No Question: I
In tense situations, one person might question another. As the respondent replies, the questioner interjects, "That was a yes-or-no question." The intent is to trap the respondent. How does this work, and how can the respondent escape the trap?
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upFour Overlooked Email Risks: I
Working together to resolve issues or make decisions in email is fraught with risk. Most discussions of these risks emphasize using etiquette to manage emotional content. But email has other limitations, less-often discussed, that make managing email exchanges very difficult.

See also Effective Communication at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Thomas Paine, considered one of the Founding Fathers of the United StatesComing December 12: Effects of Shared Information Bias: II
Shared information bias is widely believed to lead to bad decisions. But over time, it can erode a group's ability to assess reality accurately. That can lead to a widening gap between reality and the group's perceptions of reality. Available here and by RSS on December 12.
Feeling shameAnd on December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenLIxIfJxaTtbzlHKDner@ChacZFtVTmxLJPpgKODmoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many The Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Follow me at Google+ or share a post Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.